Set sail for a swash buckling adventure, will you find treasure or will this app sink?
Maracaibo was a hugely anticipated release when it first hit our tables; coming from designer Alexander Pfister who brought us Isle of Skye (which has it’s own app version) and Great Western Trail (which doesn’t have an app but features atop my most wanted app versions every time I tweet one), expectations were high and it proved to be very popular which is why it was no surprise to find out it was being adapted into an app by Spiralburst Studio.
In Maracaibo you take the mantle of a sailor cruising around the Caribbean ports, completing quests, gaining influence for the colonial nations, upgrading your ship and generally doing sailory things to amass victory points on one of the many victory point tracks, which are tallied at the end of 4 rotations through the Caribbean and a winner crowned. As with most of Alexander Pfister’s games Maracaibo features a bunch of interlocking mechanisms which while often aren’t too complicated, do take a bit of time to suss out strategically, my first few games were more a case of getting a feel for the rules before I started actually getting down to planning winning moves.
A turn in Maracaibo sees you sailing your ship anywhere from 1 to 7 spaces on the map and landing in ports either in a city or a town and taking actions depending on which you decide to land on. Dropping anchor in a city allows you to take specialist actions by trading a relevant card containing the matching good, usually involving advancing on one of the game’s victory tracks or improving the abilities of your ship by removing tokens from it and placing them on the map for additional rewards. Improving your ship affords you instant bonuses or improves the actions you are able to take when you land on a town space. Landing on a town allows you to buy cards from your hand, gaining their bonuses either immediately or at the end of the round or game, gaining additional money or strength as well as a bunch of unlockable actions which you receive from ship upgrades. They are generally less powerful actions than the cities as they don’t advance you in victory points but they are essential in building your engine throughout the game.
How fast or slow you move around the board and how well you can maximise your turns is the key to success in a game of Maracaibo. The game takes place over only 4 rounds and the length of each round is determined by when the first person reaches the end of the route; they collect the bonus for finishing first and signal the final round for all players. Therefore you could move slowly through the Caribbean, maximising each stop with a long term plan only to see it dashed as your opponent rushes to the end before you’ve had a chance to visit the ports you need. Add to that the benefit that the further you move on each turn the more actions you are able to take when landing on a village and you can easily see how it is a balancing act of rushing around the board but not so fast as to mean you don’t take enough vital actions within a round.
In addition to all this sailing you will be purchasing cards which will provide you with bonuses or discounts as well as victory points at the end of the game, trading in the same cards for special actions on cities and to complete quests or discarding the same cards for money throughout the game. The fact that a single card could be used for a multitude of things makes them equally valuable to hold as they are to spend. You will be looking for ways to synergise the cards you buy with each other for bigger bonuses as well as knowing when it’s best to give them up for the opportunity at hand, be it a quest or to use them as a trade good.
Maracaibo comes down to how well you can manipulate your actions and cards best to push you further down the many victory point tracks in the game and what strategy you use is determined by both the cards available in each game (which is variable), the cards you are able to purchase, the set up of the cities and what actions you can take in them (which is also variable) and how fast you move through all of these. You may choose to focus on the exploration track, rushing around the board to all of the actions which allow you to move your explorer down the track, hoovering up the rewards that come with it. Alternatively you may wish to engage in as much combat as possible, buying cards to add to your strength and backing one or more of the colonial powers, the more they fight the more influence they place in the region and the more points backing that nation will be worth to you and so you’re hedging your bets as to who will be the strongest most influential nation at the end of the game.
It is one of the true strengths of Alexander Pfister’s games and specifically Maracaibo in this case that there are so many avenues to victory that no game is ever really the same. The randomised set up of the actions, cards in the deck, cards you actually get to see throughout a game and choices you make mean that things change every game and figuring out the best strategy comes down to your ability to leverage what you see on the board and in your hand and make the most of it in that situation before the landscape changes and you need to pivot again. It’s a game with plenty of depth and lots to keep you thinking and keep you playing.
When it comes to presentation the app version of Maracaibo does a great job of porting the look and feel of the game to your device maintaining the artwork and design from the physical version while managing to keep all of the information you need within a click away without making the board feel cluttered. The size of the map does mean that you have to scroll around to see everything without a way of getting a zoomed out overview of all the ports and cities which would have been nice especially as my knowledge of ports in the Caribbean is limited. Colours are really vibrant and bright throughout which makes the game appealing and you even have the option of selecting 8bitMeeple pink as one of your player options (thank you to Spiralburst Studio for that inclusion!). As with a lot of Pfister’s other games Maracaibo relies heavily on pretty extensive iconography throughout which can be really overwhelming when you first start playing however once you’ve learnt what every arrow and circle and number means it makes for a great shorthand especially on the smaller phone screens, to be able to understand what every space in the game does without having to resort to text everywhere. The included tutorial for the game walks you through a few rounds of Maracaibo, explaining all of the key mechanisms to you and teaches you just enough to get started with a game. First time players will find the tutorial good enough to get a grasp of the game but will need to play through a few times to start to piece together how some of the mechanisms at play interact with each other.
This app implementation has a limited multiplayer option available with only local pass and play multiplayer available at the time of launch. It’s a shame to see no online multiplayer support which most board game apps have these days and it’s something I hope may make an appearance down the line. When it comes to single player modes Maracaibo fares better with the inclusion of both a solo mode against an automa as well as the campaign mode from the physical game. It’s been a trend in board game apps of late to include automa and for me that’s been a welcome addition for a number of reasons; firstly it provides you with a challenge without having to rely on decision making of the AI in the game which can be weak at times and predictable at other times. And secondly it provides a whole new challenge for you to deal with, like a new mode to strategise against. An automa is not without it’s flaws however, by the nature of an automa it doesn’t adhere to the rules of the game in the same way you have to, it’s moves are predetermined and the actions it takes often flout the rules in order to ensure that by the end of the game they will have a score that resembles one you might achieve. While there’s nothing wrong with this form of opponent, it does make it feel like you are both playing two different games rather than a shared experience facing the same trials and tribulations that you and an AI opponent would face. This limitation of an automa is not usually an issue as it’s included in the board game app as an additional mode to the AI, think the Clockwork expansion for Root or in Wingspan, however Maracaibo doesn’t have an AI option and as such all of your solo playing will be against this automa opponent and the only way you will get a true sense of what it’s like to play a multiplayer game of Maracaibo is via the aforementioned pass and play multiplayer option. I’m certainly glad that an automa was included rather than provide a subpar AI opponent however it’s a sad omission to lose the AI entirely. The automa in Maracaibo does come with 5 levels of difficulty and provides a consistently hard challenge to play against and so while it’s not a full fledged AI it is still a really fun way to play the game.
Thankfully Spiralburst Studio have included the campaign for Maracaibo which adds a series of chapters to the game, changing rules, adding additional quests and new locations all wrapped loosely within a narrative structure. It’s a fun mode to get into simply for the new things it adds to the game and the additional variance it gives you. Figuring out the best way to utilise the new locations or ensuring that you will be the one to collect the new items added to the map adds some new wrinkles to the game keeping it fresher for longer.
My overall final thoughts for this review of the Maracaibo app are interesting, on the one hand the game looks great, it plays smoothly and I enjoy the relatively heavy euro puzzle that the game provides. Multiple avenues to victory and turn optimisation really are what I enjoy in games generally and neat tricks that Maracaibo has up it’s sleeve mean that I thoroughly enjoy playing it. The cards that serve so many different functions are an endless source of tough decisions, robbing Peter to pay Paul constantly and the combat system that can completely change within one turn are really cool mechanisms to have in one game. On the other hand, it’s sad to see some limited options in terms of both multiplayer as well as an AI opponent, it really changes the way I think about the game with these options missing. The Maracaibo app feels to me like a very solitary experience of a board game with the inclusion of both the automa and the campaign mode really geared towards solo play and as such if I’m looking for a relatively heavy euro game experience alone then Maracaibo is a fantastic option for that and one that I’ve been picking up and delving into a lot. However if I’m looking to get a more social board game experience (even if it’s just against a computer as weird as that sounds) then Maracaibo doesn’t currently have the option there for me to be able to play. With all of the tough decisions the Maracaibo app had me making it’s toughest one was how to rate a game that does everything it does so well but is missing some features that give me the full board game experience. Overall simply put the Maracaibo app is a great one if you’re looking for a heavier gaming experience as a solo player, it’s fun and challenging and the campaign mode is a great inclusion. Spiralburst Studio have done a great job porting the game over and fitting it all onto our screens without it feeling overly cluttered or confusing. If you are looking for an online multiplayer experience against your friends or as a training ground for you against an AI opponent to hone your skills then currently this might not be for you. Having said that Maracaibo is an app I’ll be continuing to play going forward whenever I’m looking to enjoy a heavier weight game on my own.